Do the work: Make your résumé a living document

From the Archives

Originally published September 10, 2015

Breathing new life into your career – something we all seem to want to do all the time – starts with giving new life to your résumé today. Crafted properly, a living résumé is not easy, nor is it done with a Mary Poppins-like snap of the fingers. In fact, it can be a little tedious and intimidating at first, since it is difficult to know what hiring managers want to see in today’s world. Functional format? Chronological format? Some kind of hybrid format? List these things? Eliminate these other things? Do people actually read the cover letter you’ve painstakingly written? There’s no one right answer, and that’s what drives many people just to “wing it” and hope for the best. Don’t be one of those people. Craft a winning résumé and breathe new life into your career, as this document makes a first impression of you to employers. Here’s how to get started.

Courting employers in today’s fast-paced online world is much like online dating: your first impression is often – unfairly – made electronically. Remember the days when you would actually respond to an ad by calling the prospective employer to express interest and getting invited to the office for a face-to-face, sit-down meeting? While those days aren’t entirely gone, there has been a great shift to online ads and e-mail submissions of résumés and cover letters. If you are to compete with others also making that first impression by e-mail or online form submission, start by thinking deeply about what makes you appealing as an employee. Focus on your strengths (talents), marketable skills and traits, and experience and education.

Strengths (Talents)
Strengths are those innate parts of you that you can develop, though not necessarily learn if you don’t already possess them. Being organized, for example, is something that comes naturally to some and not so much to others. Some minds work in such a way that makes it easier for them to put things into mental or physical spaces that make logical sense and to be able to retrieve them systematically later. Other people not so inclined can surely learn some skills useful in putting things where they belong, and they may never naturally tend to perform or behave that way. For this reason, I consider being organized a strength. I recommend a tool like Strengths Finder to help you identify talents that set you apart.

Use this self-discovery as a basis for writing a compelling profile for your résumé. This section need not be more than a few sentences, three or four at most, and whether you choose to use the more traditional – and formal – third person with no pronouns or the more modern human first person, keep it accurate, brief, and concise. If you’re a self-starter, say so. If you prefer working independently, be up front about it. If you’re a natural team relationship builder, that’s a valuable talent in today’s ever-changing work landscape. Include it. Craft three or four sentences (be willing to part with one of them to conserve space) and try them out on friends and family for feedback.

Marketable Skills & Traits
I recently helped a young lady breathe life into her résumé in time for her to start her senior year of high school. When we chatted about her previous work experience, she focused on her limited experience and otherwise “unimpressive” (her description, not mine) work history, something more common among women than men and the topic of a future blog post. As a result we spent quite some time going back and forth about how to find skills that could be applied to a future job. The conversation shifted after we did this exercise: Go online and search “job skills” with the position or title of a job you’ve held. Find a link that lists – as extensively as you care to research – specific traits and skills that are valuable for someone in that role. Assess how many of those things apply to you and have been useful on previous jobs.

That’s not an end-all solution; it’s a great starting point. The young lady with whom I was working was able to identify numerous skills that she used all the time, though it never occurred to her to quantify them. You may find the same to be true for you. Someone has taken the time to compile these lists of skills and desirable traits as they apply to various jobs and career tracks. Use them. Mine them for the things that apply to you and use them as a place to evaluate yourself for improvement. Are there things you could be learning while looking for a new job? Are there things on those lists that you’re not currently using in a job you have? Sometimes this discovery leads to a more fulfilling experience in the job you now hold. Truly explore yourself in this process and use what you learn to direct your thinking as you update your résumé.

There are many ways to use this information on your living résumé. Two main ways are to develop a skills section on your résumé and to list job duties and achievements that utilize(d) these skills. Personally, I’ve become a fan of both; I maintain a skills section at the top or bottom of my résumé, depending on my audience, and I list specific skill-centered career highlights for each job I include. Of all the iterations of my résumé just within the last year, a format that integrates skills this way has yielded the greatest results. Still, you may choose to implement only one of these – or other – methods to draw attention to your skills. Perhaps you will leave skills out of the résumé altogether and focus on them in your cover letters. Whichever path you choose, do the work. Assess yourself and use the information to help your career documents take shape.

Education & Experience
There’s no getting around these elements of your career. No matter how much some employers focus on one over the other, both are critical sections deserving of your attention to detail. You choose which details of your education section you care to mention. (To list GPA or not to list GPA? That is the question.) The important elements are where you attended, when you attended, and what you gained from it – degree, in progress, anticipated, etc. Don’t skip this section though, even if your academic credentials are lackluster. Many hiring managers feel that candidates have something to hide by not listing this section, and they are less likely to trust the rest of the document if they develop that feeling toward you. Put something there.

Experience is a funny thing. Some of the reading you’ll do dictates that there’s no need to list jobs further back than ten years because the job market and skills needed have changed drastically in at least that amount of time. What about someone with a long and glorious career whose most recent job spans more than ten years? Just list the one job? For many job seekers that feels absurd. As a result, it can be difficult to parse out the best advice for dealing with job experience and career history. Other tricky situations are career shifts, consulting experience, and gaps due to academic endeavors, among many other things that have probably already come to your mind.

Some job seekers have vast experience in a particular field, though they have little or no formal education in it. That appeals to some hiring mangers who need experience in their workplaces, and it disgusts other employers who want fresh, new blood with college credentials or a plan toward obtaining such credentials. A topic for yet another blog post – the ever-changing face of the job market and employment landscape – explores this and other job search problems in more depth. For the purpose of creating a résumé that lives and breathes as you do, that moves your job search along, and that truly reflects you as an ideal employee, weight your experience and education in a way that draws attention to whichever makes you more valuable and marketable. If you have vast academic experience and credentials, emphasize them. If your experience shines brighter than your formal education, mention the education and get heavy about turning the spotlight onto your valuable work history.

As I was drafting this post, my brother called with a question, and as we made small talk afterward, he mentioned that he’s always looking for another job. He’s passive about it at the moment, and even so, he has done enough research to know – and share – that it can be very difficult to navigate today’s job landscape. It’s hard to know what advice to follow, which résumé and cover letter writing tips are most accurate for you, how much or how little feedback to elicit and follow… As we concluded, a changing job market is guiding much of the mixed bag of “wisdom” available to job seekers. Even this blog post doesn’t attempt to consolidate or extract all that knowledge being shared online and in books. In fact, all this post does is urge you to do the work.

Creating a résumé that looks and feels like you is not easy work. Think about how long it took you become the person you now are; you will devote hours and hours to coming up perhaps two or three versions of your résumé, all of which convey the same information in different ways depending on your audience. You adapt your speech and attitude depending on who’s in your audience all the time, and your résumé needs to do the same. Again, the message here is do the work. Properly and compellingly crafted, your living résumé gets updated as often as your career shifts. If you achieve some great thing in your current job, get that achievement quantified on your résumé. Updating your LinkedIn profile? Let your résumé guide your profile development. Do the work. And share comments and advice you’ve found helpful in carving your résumé and cover letters after your own professional image. Thanks for reading.